The Myth of Declension

James Nuechterlein

Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 93 (May 1999): 11-12.

Conservatives are still a long way from recovering from their post–impeachment funk. The most dispirited among them talk as if the American people, in their failure to recognize the necessity for President Clinton’s removal from office, should themselves be put in the dock. In this view, the public’s moral abdication (where was the outrage?) would justify—indeed may even require—the right’s secession from a citizenry unworthy of its superior moral sensibility.

Most conservatives, while occasionally tempted to such melancholy conclusions, finally retreat from them, if only on grounds of prudence. They remember what happened to a McGovernism that decided, in effect, that America was not good enough for it. So they cast about for excuses for the public’s refusal to see things the way it ought to have seen them: slick Willy’s slickness, a booming economy, an aversion to risk, an understandable if misplaced reluctance to make moral judgments, the ineptitude of the House managers in presenting their case.

A few of them edge up to what I—in splendid isolation among conservatives—take to be the case. The American people did not get things wrong at all. They disagreed with conservatives not on the President’s behavior, but on the appropriate punishment for that behavior. Removal from office was simply too radical a step. As Ramesh Ponnuru shrewdly put it in National Review: "It was not so much that Americans opposed removal because they supported Clinton so strongly. Rather, they supported Clinton so strongly because they opposed removal."

But even Ponnuru, for all his understanding, does not believe that the public was right to oppose removal. He recognizes that it would be feckless for conservatives to belabor the matter, but deep down he agrees that there was, in some sense, a failure of moral perception on the part of the American people: "Conservatives are entitled—are required—to insist that a large majority of the public got impeachment wrong." Conservatives of Ponnuru’s persuasion thus avoid post–impeachment funk only by a willed refusal to linger over its moral implications. Like the President, if for rather different reasons, they want to put impeachment behind them and move on to other things.

Impeachment quite aside, conservatives have a natural proclivity for searching for signs of moral slippage in society. That is simply the kind of thing conservatives do; it is one of their assumed social functions. That social duty carries with it obvious dangers. There is a very fine line distinguishing the moral sentinel from the common scold. One way of staying on the right side of that line is to maintain a sense of historical perspective.

Americans have had a habit of imagining themselves in a state of moral free fall almost from the beginning. The Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1620s had a strong sense of themselves as agents of God’s providence, but the members of the successor generation worried endlessly about their failure to live up to the moral standards set for them. As Perry Miller, the brilliant historian of the Puritans, put it: "In the 1640s there commenced in the sermons of New England a lament over the waning of primitive zeal and the consequent atrophy of public morals, which swelled to an incessant chant within forty years. By 1680 there seems to have been hardly any other theme for discourse, and the pulpits rang week after week with lengthening jeremiads."

What began with the Puritans of the seventeenth century has been picked up by virtually every generation since. The themes developed by Michael Wigglesworth in God’s Controversy with New England in 1662 have been elaborated on by religious and secular moralists for over three centuries. The same Americans who annoyed European visitors with their endless braggadocio endured perpetual concern over the condition of the national soul.

The clergy of the revolutionary era speculated that the depredations the colonists suffered from England were punishments for colonial sins. Americans of the Jacksonian era lamented the decline from the standards of virtue set in the great days of the Founding. Social critics in the late nineteenth century expressed doubt that the nation was worthy of the sacrifices made to preserve the Union during the Civil War. Many people saw the Great Depression as a fit judgment on the gaudy self–indulgence of the 1920s. And so on even unto the present moment.

Not infrequently the jeremiads take on a partisan cast. Liberals depicted the 1950s—which conservatives experienced as a virtual golden age—as a complacent and irresponsible retreat from the social democratic strivings of the New Deal and Fair Deal. In the sixties, things were turned around. The left viewed the decade as a heroic revival of conscience while conservatives saw in it a falling away from the moral and political sobriety of the Eisenhower era to adolescent indulgence in moral license and political grandiosity.

In labeling this perpetual tendency "the myth of declension" (a term applied by historians specifically to the Puritan experience) I do not mean to suggest that there is never any truth in it. The Puritans of the 1660s may have been right in thinking that their generation did not measure up to John Winthrop’s. Some periods of our history do seem less worthy of admiration than others. Who would not instinctively agree that the politicians of the Jackson era were, as a class, inferior to the generation of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Hamilton?

But moral analysis must always proceed with caution, and the larger the moral judgment offered, the greater the caution required. Generations have greatness, and the absence thereof, thrust upon them. The Founders faced more momentous challenges than did the Jacksonians, and so we are naturally inclined, their specific actions for the moment aside, to attribute to them more heroic stature. Similarly, we celebrate to the point of reverence those who endured the Depression and World War II, and we of whom less has been required imagine ourselves—whether rightly or not we can never know—as moral pygmies by comparison. We would have had to have been there and faced what they faced to know for sure, and we weren’t and didn’t.

Sensible historical comparisons require, in addition to a tentative spirit, a taste for complexity. Consider the matter of prosperity. If there is one theme common to all American jeremiads, it is that prosperity corrupts. From Michael Wigglesworth to yesterday’s op–ed, we are invariably instructed that we have been made soft, lax, and indifferent by our material preoccupations. All of which is true (as the Scriptures insistently remind us), but perhaps not, in this large social context, particularly useful.

Distinctions are in order, beginning with the obvious one between prosperity as potential inducement to sin and prosperity as sinful in itself. One occasionally gets the sense from our social critics that it would be morally bracing for us to pursue economic policies that result in collective financial ruin. It takes someone who has never been poor to suppose that poverty is a goad to virtue. Those who have experienced poverty know how cruelly stupid that view is.

Long way back, then, to our current situation, to which we need to apply the first law of social analysis: avoid over–interpretation. We are, as with all generations, morally confused and confounded. We ought to deny ourselves, however, that peculiar form of moral conceit that supposes we are distinctively so. The myth of declension is, like all myths, a meaning–making instrument. We should not burden it with more weight than it can bear.